Debates between Lord Murphy of Torfaen and Baroness Suttie during the 2019 Parliament

Windsor Framework (Constitutional Status of Northern Ireland) Regulations 2024

Debate between Lord Murphy of Torfaen and Baroness Suttie
Tuesday 13th February 2024

(4 months ago)

Lords Chamber
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Baroness Suttie Portrait Baroness Suttie (LD)
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My Lords, like the noble Baroness, Lady Foster, I will try to inject a little positivity into what has been a very long and unfortunately rather negative debate, although I understand the many comments and justifiable criticisms made by the noble Lords opposite. Given the hour, I shall also endeavour to be brief.

I start by greatly welcoming that the institutions in Northern Ireland are once again up and running. That is an achievement and it needs to be celebrated. From these Benches I commend the political leadership and courage, and the ability to see the bigger picture, that have taken us to this point—not least the personal drive and commitment shown by the Minister himself. It is still early days, but I believe there are grounds for optimism that this time the Assembly will continue to sit.

The people of Northern Ireland are entitled to expect a period of stability, so that the many health, educational and economic crises can begin to be addressed. Before I turn to the details of the regulations I would like to recall, as other noble Lords have done, that we are facing all these highly complex issues, and the equally complex set of proposals and solutions in front of us, because of Brexit. I felt that the noble Lords, Lord Bew and Lord Hain, made that case extremely powerfully in tonight’s debate.

A colleague was reminding me just the other day of the excellent report on Brexit and the island of Ireland that the EU Select Committee of your Lordships’ House published way back in December 2016. That report so accurately anticipated so many of the issues that we are still trying to tackle, nearly eight years on from the EU referendum.

I would also like to commend the excellent job done by the Northern Ireland protocol committee, now the Windsor Framework committee, of this House. Several noble Lords referred to it and several are indeed members of it. It has done so much to scrutinise the realities being faced by Northern Ireland on these issues. No matter which of the latest solutions we are debating, I have always felt that it is the elected politicians in Northern Ireland who are best placed to find pragmatic solutions. They are also in the best position to resolve any continuing barriers.

This evening, so much of the focus has been on the understandable concerns about unfettered access and trade between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, but perhaps too little is made—at least in this Chamber this evening—of the potential opportunities offered by joint access to the EU market.

In that regard, it is important that the Stormont brake is considered only as an instrument of last resort. It is important that the recently restored Northern Ireland institutions have a strong dialogue with Brussels and are in a position to flag potential issues as soon as possible. Can the Minister say whether he has had conversations with the Executive to investigate mechanisms for ensuring that effective dialogue takes place with the EU at an early stage in the process? It is extremely important that maximum attention is given to particular concerns facing Northern Ireland businesses at an early stage of the decision-making process in the EU.

Turning to the regulations themselves, the excellent short report from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee on these regulations—as quoted by the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie—states:

“Given the complexity of the interaction of two regulatory systems in NI, we note the importance of the forthcoming guidance to provide clarity to businesses and other stakeholders on how the new arrangements should be applied in practice”.


When does the Minister expect that this additional guidance will be published? Can he give continued reassurance about ongoing consultation with both the Executive and Northern Ireland businesses to ensure that this guidance is as effective and user friendly as possible?

As the noble Lord, Lord Hay, said in his very powerful speech, the devil will be in the detail on how these new mechanisms will work in practice. In a similar vein, can the Minister say when he expects further details and guidance to be published on how the new independent monitoring panel, InterTrade UK and the new east-west council will operate in practice? As other noble Lords have asked, how will they work with existing institutions?

It is also very important that other parts of the UK understand these new bodies and regulations and understand how they will work. This is particularly true for the business community and the rest of the UK Civil Service. Does the Minister anticipate a communications plan to ensure that the details set out in the Command Paper, as well as the future guidance, is widely understood by relevant stakeholders across the wider UK?

In conclusion, I believe there is every reason to be optimistic, despite the many speeches this evening. But we need to learn from the lessons of the recent past. We need to see a return to trust and inclusiveness in Northern Ireland politics.

Lord Murphy of Torfaen Portrait Lord Murphy of Torfaen (Lab)
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My Lords, it has been a long night, but an important night. I hope there will be another debate in the not-too-distant future which will allow more Members of your Lordships’ House to take part on this important issue. The Opposition support the statutory instrument, as we support the deal done by the Government and the DUP. I add my own congratulations to the Minister personally, to his boss the Secretary of State and, of course, to Sir Jeffrey Donaldson and others involved in the negotiations in the last months.

It is significant that this is probably the first major debate we have had on Northern Ireland that has not been about emergency legislation and giving powers to civil servants. It has not been about bringing down the Assembly because of what has happened over the last couple of years. It is very positive in that respect. We are talking about the restoration of those institutions of government in Northern Ireland, and the Executive and Assembly in particular. That is hugely significant. I take the point about the money—it is the Treasury again, I suspect—but we will have an opportunity to debate that in future weeks. It is great news for the people of Northern Ireland, whatever their background and community, that they now have democratic government restored. For that, all of us, I am sure, should be grateful.

The noble Lord, Lord Bew, in an extremely interesting contribution to tonight’s debate talked about the Act of Union—which was a long time ago—and how that was not set in stone over the centuries. If you look back at it since 1801, particularly in the 20th century when there was the old Stormont Parliament, of course there were customs regulations. When I was an Opposition spokesman on Northern Ireland, there were customs regulations on agriculture and horticulture coming from Great Britain into Northern Ireland. It is not new, and the idea that somehow or other Northern Ireland should not be different really is nonsense, because Scotland and Wales are different and Northern Ireland is different in all sorts of ways.

The issue is that it is different within the context of our leaving the European Union; of course I understand that. The noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, and my noble friends Lord Hain and Lady Ritchie all mentioned the fact that Brexit caused it. Whatever our views on Brexit—and I was very much a remainer, and I am deeply disappointed that my country, Wales, did not vote to stay in the European Union—it was Brexit that caused this and there are two points about that I want to make.

The first one is that the majority of people in Northern Ireland voted to remain. I agree that the law is quite clear: you leave as a whole, as the United Kingdom. But it is the only measurement we have of what the people of Northern Ireland thought about the whole idea of Brexit. The second one is that I and lots of politicians failed when those Brexit referendum debates were going on to actually deal with the issue of Northern Ireland and Ireland; we were all to blame for that. We did not realise—I certainly did not—that the turmoil that would result in Northern Ireland and the island of Ireland as a consequence of Brexit would lead to the protocol and to the Windsor Framework and to this.

It is quite clear why we were in this mess and why we still have a long way to go to assuage people in Northern Ireland on the unionist side that things can only get better. This deal is not perfect; deals never are. It is a comprise; all deals are compromises. The Good Friday agreement was a compromise; the St Andrews agreement was a compromise. If we are to look at that Good Friday agreement, which is quoted all the time in the Command Paper, the two big issues that come out are the principle of consent and parity of esteem. The unionist argument over the last couple of years has been on both those issues: that the consent across Northern Ireland was not there with regard to the arrangements on leaving the European Union and, as a consequence, the parity of esteem was not there.

However many statutory instruments this House or the other House agrees, the union is safe, not because of statutory instruments but because, as the noble Lord, Lord Empey, said, of the people. The people of Northern Ireland by their consent will agree whether to remain in the United Kingdom. When I first came into the House of Commons a long time ago, the policy of the Labour Party was a united Ireland. When Tony Blair became the leader of the Opposition, he changed it and said you could not argue for that; you had to argue for what we agreed in the Good Friday agreement, which was the principle of consent. All this other stuff in the deal, in the statutory instruments, is nothing compared to that basic principle that it is safe so long as the people of Northern Ireland so agree. Even if they did agree to leave the United Kingdom, that would not be easy either but that is for us to consider another day; it is safe at the moment.

This deal—this restoration of the Assembly and the Executive—is about not just strand 1 but strands 2 and 3 as well. If you bring down the Assembly and the Executive, there are no north-south bodies. But strand 2 was an integral part of the Good Friday agreement, which would not have happened without it. The nationalist community had to be satisfied that it was being regarded with parity of esteem as much as the unionists—and strand 2 did that. I do not have many questions for the Minister, but I will ask this: what precisely will happen with regard to the North/South Ministerial Council and the north-south bodies as a consequence of the restoration of the institutions of strand 1?

Northern Ireland Executive Formation

Debate between Lord Murphy of Torfaen and Baroness Suttie
Thursday 1st February 2024

(4 months, 2 weeks ago)

Lords Chamber
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Lord Murphy of Torfaen Portrait Lord Murphy of Torfaen (Lab)
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My Lords, it was only last week that we debated the legislation deferring this decision and pondered whether we would arrive at a settlement. The Minister was very coy but, as the result of a great deal of negotiation, we have now arrived at a considerable and significant deal. I congratulate both the Secretary of State on the work that he has obviously done over the last number of months to achieve it and the Minister, who I know will have put in a huge amount of effort and used his great knowledge of Northern Ireland to help ensure that this deal came to fruition. I also put on record my party’s appreciation of Sir Jeffrey Donaldson and the immense work he has done over the last number of months, against all odds and with grave threats. He has done a great service to the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland.

I also thank the civil servants in Northern Ireland, who have ensured that there has been government there for nearly two years in the absence of an Assembly. They should not be forgotten. The Minister referred to the document. It is a long one—80 pages of decisions that have been taken to ensure that the deal is effective. There are some ingenious solutions there, such as the internal market between Great Britain and Northern Ireland being ensured and guaranteed. Also, now in Northern Ireland we have an internal market—including the east-west council and the InterTrade body that the Minister referred to—as well as the operation of the single market. I hope that those two factors will ensure that Northern Ireland will have access to markets far beyond what businesses in Scotland, Wales or England would have. Above all else, of course, this leads to the restoration of the institutions of the Good Friday agreement: the Executive and the Assembly and, of course, the strand 2 institutions, the north-south bodies. Can the Minister elaborate a little on what might happen with those bodies?

I welcome the financial settlement. At last, we have a needs-based formula for Northern Ireland, as we have in Wales. That has been fought for by the parties in Northern Ireland, particularly the DUP in this Chamber, for some time now. Even though a lot of money, £3.5 billion, is going over to Northern Ireland, the Executive and the Assembly will have a really hard job on their hands to ensure that public services are maintained, particularly the National Health Service, which is in dire straits. Can the Minister tell us, as far as he can, what the next steps will be over the next few days to ensure the restoration of the institutions?

Finally, I think that he would agree that we do not want to see all this happening again. It has been two years since we have had an Assembly. Before that, Sinn Féin brought down the Assembly. Is there a case for the parties in Northern Ireland, helped by the Government, devising a system to ensure that greater stability would occur in Northern Ireland in years to come?

For the moment, I wish the new and first nationalist First Minister of Northern Ireland, the Deputy First Minister and all Members of the Assembly well. It is a good week for Northern Ireland and for the country.

Baroness Suttie Portrait Baroness Suttie (LD)
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My Lords, I too thank the Minister for repeating yesterday’s Statement and commend him and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland for their dedication and hard work in all their efforts to secure the deal that we are discussing today.

Northern Ireland is in a significantly more hopeful place as a result of this deal, which is greatly to be welcomed. After two years of political vacuum in Northern Ireland, the most important thing is that the Executive and the Assembly can get back to work as soon as possible, for there is so much to do. It is tragic that so much time has been wasted when so much has needed to be done. It has been nearly two years, during which time the healthcare system, education and public services in Northern Ireland have reached crisis point. But, as Naomi Long, leader of the Alliance Party, said on Tuesday:

“The priority now is where we go from here, not where we have been”.


I am glad that the deal has very much been welcomed in Northern Ireland, at least by the majority. There is a palpable sense of relief, and a recognition across the board that it is surely better for local people to be taking these decisions and, if necessary, pushing for further improvements and further reforms. Once the Assembly and the Executive are fully functioning again, Northern Ireland will have a stronger voice in both Westminster and Brussels. It is also welcome that the funds, the £3.3 billion, can now be released, as the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, said. It is the Executive who will be best placed to decide how this money should be used.

The stalemate of the last two years has served nobody well. Indeed, the stop-start nature of devolution in Northern Ireland since the Good Friday/Belfast agreement has meant that Northern Ireland has been held back from reaching its full potential. It is unacceptable that, for five of the last seven years, there has been no functioning Executive.

But people and businesses in Northern Ireland need to know that this deal will last. As was said many times during debate on the Statement in the House of Commons yesterday, there needs to be a bedrock of stability so that it is no longer possible for one party to collapse the Executive. Like the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, I would be grateful if the Minister can confirm that he will, with the parties in Northern Ireland, examine ways to ensure that the stability of the institutions can be better protected in future.

As has been said, particularly in the House of Commons, this is now an opportunity for Northern Ireland: an opportunity to ensure that it is a place where people want to invest and where families want to choose to come and live. There is so much potential, and I sincerely hope that, this time, this agreement will last.

Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill

Debate between Lord Murphy of Torfaen and Baroness Suttie
Baroness Suttie Portrait Baroness Suttie (LD)
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My Lords, I broadly welcome these government amendments. This is a complex matter, as the interventions this afternoon have illustrated, but I am glad that the Minister has managed to find a solution that is, broadly speaking, acceptable to all, subject to the comments made for the record by the noble Lord, Lord Pannick.

I have only one question for the Minister regarding these Third Reading amendments. I assume that the Northern Ireland Department of Justice was also consulted and that it is happy with these proposals. Could the Minister perhaps confirm that that is the case?

Lord Murphy of Torfaen Portrait Lord Murphy of Torfaen (Lab)
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My Lords, this is the third occasion on which your Lordships have had the opportunity to discuss what has become an increasingly complex issue. I am delighted that it is probably the last as, should there be any more, it would get even more complicated.

I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, that Lord Kerr was a very eminent judge. Many of us remember him and the great work that he did. However, there has clearly been a problem with this particular judgment, and the principle of junior Ministers signing orders on behalf of the Secretary of State, even if it applied all those years ago, must be sustained. So I very much look forward to what the Minister has to say in response to this short debate. We will not be opposing this amendment.

Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill

Debate between Lord Murphy of Torfaen and Baroness Suttie
Lord Murphy of Torfaen Portrait Lord Murphy of Torfaen (Lab)
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I associate myself with the Minister in remembering those who suffered violence over the last number of years and thank him for the way in which he has engaged with Members of this House and beyond. His amendments generally improve the Bill, but I suspect that he will find this evening that they do not go far enough for those with fundamental objections to the Bill. We shall certainly not vote against them today or Monday, as they do, as I say, improve it.

The Minister made reference to Sir Declan Morgan, who has been appointed as the chief commissioner designate—a clever move on the Government’s part, because he is a man of huge integrity, experience and expertise. There is some doubt as to whether it should have been announced quite this early, but I understand why the Government decided so to do.

I am sure that this evening we will hear a number of important points on the many issues, from immunity to prosecution and other matters. I hope that the House will be able to give consideration briefly to those points.

Baroness Suttie Portrait Baroness Suttie (LD)
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I echo a lot of the comments that the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, has just made, and the Minister’s comments about remembering. It is very important that we never forget all those impacted and killed by the Troubles.

I too start by thanking the Minister for the constructive way in which he has engaged on the Bill, given the constraints that he faces at the other end of the building. He has always shown himself willing to meet and discuss, and I know that he has dedicated a considerable amount of time to the Bill, including during the summer holiday last year, perhaps. For that we thank him.

Again, like the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, most of us feel that, although the amendments are to a very large degree to be welcomed, they are not game-changing; they have not really changed the Bill to the extent to which many of us would have liked to see. I am sure that we will return to that issue at later stages, but this group is a positive example of amendments that these Benches are happy to welcome.

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Baroness Suttie Portrait Baroness Suttie (LD)
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My Lords, I place on record my thanks to the Minister for introducing Amendments 85 and 86, which, in essence, as he has said, are the same amendments that I tabled in Committee and were recommended by the victims’ commissioner, Ian Jeffers. It is a very welcome and common-sense change to the Bill, allowing for individuals affected by death and other harmful conduct to provide and publish personal statements to the ICRIR. I am very grateful that he is willing to make this small but important change, notwithstanding my earlier comments about the bigger picture of the Bill, including, in particular, immunity and other issues that we will get to later this evening. I will be very interested to hear the Minister’s response to the important points raised by the noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan, about the potential conflict between reconciliation and investigation.

Lord Murphy of Torfaen Portrait Lord Murphy of Torfaen (Lab)
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My Lords, I agree with every word spoken by every Member of this House who has taken part in this very brief debate. First, I thank the Minister for certainly improving what was there before—there is no question about that—but it does not, of course, go to the heart of the issue of why it is that victims, victims groups and the victims’ commissioner are probably the people most opposed to the Bill as a whole. Putting the word “reconciliation” in it does not mean to say it makes it any better, because, as my noble friend Lady Ritchie and the noble Lord, Lord Weir, said, there is a vagueness about the definition, so it does not actually mean very much at the end of the day.

What is purposeful, I think, is the fact that there are going to be victim statements. I think that is a distinct improvement, but ultimately the reason that victims and their families and their advocates in Northern Ireland are opposed to the Bill is because of the proposals on immunity, which we will reach a little later this evening. However, the Opposition will not oppose the amendments.

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Baroness Suttie Portrait Baroness Suttie (LD)
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My Lords, this has been an interesting short debate. These Benches fully support Amendment 31, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Hain, and signed by the noble Lords, Lord Blair and Lord Murphy, and the noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan; if it is pushed to a vote on Monday, we will certainly support it. As other noble Lords have spelled out so clearly—perhaps not the noble Baroness, Lady Hoey, who has reservations, but certainly the noble Lord, Lord Blair, and the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie—the Operation Kenova model, with investigations to criminal justice standards, has been proven to work and should and could provide an effective alternative to the approach being adopted by the Government. I still hope that the Government will move further in this direction and support at least the spirit of Amendment 31. If they will not, it would be very useful to hear why from the Minister in his concluding remarks.

Lord Murphy of Torfaen Portrait Lord Murphy of Torfaen (Lab)
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My Lords, I very much appreciate the amendments put forward by the Government in this group, which are a genuine attempt to improve the Bill. In particular, Amendments 30 and 33 make it clear that the commission must act in a way that is consistent with the Human Rights Act and therefore the European Convention on Human Rights. The problem is that the Government need to ensure that the people who take these matters very seriously are convinced, when it is said that the legislation is compliant, that it actually is. That is a job of work that the Minister must undertake in the weeks ahead.

I very much support Amendment 31 in the name of my noble friend Lord Hain, ably moved by my noble friend Lady Ritchie. I have met Jon Boutcher on a number of occasions and have been deeply impressed by his work and by him personally. Operation Kenova has achieved a very compassionate and efficient way of dealing with these issues, not just in a couple of cases but in anything up to 200, as the noble Lord, Lord Blair, has said. I hope the Government seriously consider my noble friend’s amendment on this issue, because it would be more generally acceptable than the present system.

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Baroness Suttie Portrait Baroness Suttie (LD)
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My Lords, I shall speak in favour of Amendment 110, to which I have added my name. It would remove Clause 40 from the Bill and would have the effect of leaving the inquest system as it currently stands. I shall be extremely brief because the noble Baronesses, Lady O’Loan and Lady Ritchie, have made the case so powerfully in favour of the amendment.

The Minister will know that the victims’ commissioner, Ian Jeffers, is deeply concerned that removing the current inquest system would be an additional blow to families who have already waited decades for an inquest, and it is just not clear how and when the ICRIR will work to deal with them. Does the Minister agree that, when an inquest has begun and the preparatory work has been done, it seems inefficient and impractical to start a new process with new personnel?

Lord Murphy of Torfaen Portrait Lord Murphy of Torfaen (Lab)
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My Lords, after immunity, this part of the Bill is the most disliked, criticised and disapproved of in Northern Ireland. I understand why: because we will have inquests abolished, civil action banned and investigations not allowed to go on. That means the rule of law in Northern Ireland is being denied to the people, because of the decision of the Government to impose this Bill upon them.

I am not saying that there might not be occasions when all those things should happen. The problem is that, as in the case of immunity, effectively the Government have no Northern Ireland mandate for what they are doing. You can abolish the rule of law in some forms in a country only if the people are behind it. If the people’s representatives from all the political parties in Northern Ireland, and through all the churches and the organisations representing human rights there, and the victims’ commissioner for Northern Ireland, are opposed to this serious deflection from the rule of law then the only way that it can happen is if there is consensus.

The Good Friday agreement and the St Andrews agreement were based on consensus. The Stormont House agreement was based on consensus; the clue is in the name. The Minister shakes his head at that, but he knows that it would be a good basis for action if the Stormont House agreement were put forward. He had a very good Secretary of State at the time, but Johnson sacked him—maybe because he was too good. The issue, at the end of the day, is that you cannot impose these draconian changes in how the judicial and legal system works unless they have a legitimacy among the people who will have to live with them. That applies to the whole Bill but particularly to this provision. The reason why I support Amendment 110 is, again, because it gives the House of Commons the opportunity, if it is passed here, to have another look at it—a deep look at why this aspect of the Bill is so unpopular.

I cannot get my mind or head around why the Government are so stubborn on this. They can do what they like in Britain because they have a mandate, for another year, in the House of Commons. But, more than anybody else in the Government, the Minister knows that it is different in Northern Ireland and that these enormous changes cannot be made effective unless there is some sort of consensus. I do not for one second believe that the Government are wrong in seeking and trying to find a solution. The problem is that, in this case, they simply have not.

Justice and Security (Northern Ireland) Act 2007 (Extension of Duration of Non-jury Trial Provisions) Order 2023

Debate between Lord Murphy of Torfaen and Baroness Suttie
Monday 5th June 2023

(1 year ago)

Grand Committee
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Baroness Suttie Portrait Baroness Suttie (LD)
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My Lords, I too thank the Minister for his detailed explanation of this order. Without repeating the various points made by other noble Lords in this short debate, I add my voice to those saying that this eighth extension of these provisions is deeply to be regretted, but clearly, while the threat from terrorism remains severe and given the current levels of paramilitary activity and intimidation, the Government, supported by the continued work of the multidisciplinary working group, are right to continue with the provisions. I note that, following the consultations, nine respondents agreed with the need to extend the provisions and two were against.

There can never be any excuse for terrorism or murder in Northern Ireland. Any such acts have to be utterly and roundly condemned. The shooting of John Caldwell was horrendous and devastating for him and his family. As the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, said, there has been an escalation in other incidents—perhaps lower in profile but none the less deeply worrying. I add my voice to the relief—congratulations is perhaps too strong a word—that John Caldwell is now making a full recovery. I wish him and his family well in that continued recovery.

As others have said, on these Benches we profoundly believe in the right to trial by jury. We must work to find practical solutions to manage the risk of juror intimidation and robust juror protection measures.

In conclusion, like others, I very much hope that this is the last time we need to see an extension of these provisions. Let us hope that by the time of the next revision, the Executive and the Assembly are once again fully functioning and that the security situation in Northern Ireland is very much improved.

Lord Murphy of Torfaen Portrait Lord Murphy of Torfaen (Lab)
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My Lords, I agree with everything that has been said, but it is still a grave and terrible thing to take away the right of a citizen of the United Kingdom to have a trial by jury, which goes back many centuries. Of course, I understand why this occurred. Anyone who, like me, has been watching that wonderful series about the recent Troubles, “Once Upon a Time in Northern Ireland” on BBC Northern Ireland, will understand why you could not avoid jurors being intimated by paramilitaries from both sides if they took part in their legal duty.

But times have changed. Over the last 25 years, roughly 160 people have been killed because of terrorist activity, compared with 3,500 before 1998. That is an enormous change. Many people forget that the Good Friday agreement also dealt with the criminal justice system in Northern Ireland and changed it to such an extent that it became acceptable to all communities in Northern Ireland. That is why, in 2007 there was a major change to ensure that only the smallest number of cases are to be dealt with simply by judges and not by juries. No one wants that to continue in our democratic society—of course we do not.

The only thing that needs to be reflected on—it comes out in the consultation document that the Government produced—is that there are still difficulties. When I looked at the figures it struck me that hundreds of families are still made homeless because of sectarianism in Northern Ireland. Hundreds of people are still attacked and injured because of paramilitary activity in Northern Ireland. Tragically, there are still people killed because of that. While those circumstances continue, it is necessary for this legislation to be continued for a further two years.

I hope the Minister will go back and reflect on what the Committee has said about reviewing the situation with non-jury trials over the next two years. I know there is a working party. I hope it actually operates and that the next time, if we are spared, we come to renew this legislation, we might not have to do so, but at the moment, we do.

I conclude on one other factor. Political instability is the cousin of political violence—a distant cousin, but it is there. The more the Government concentrate their effort on trying to ensure that we get political stability in Northern Ireland by constantly talking to the political parties there and to others concerned, the better, so that when we return after the recess, perhaps—who knows?—the institutions will be restored.

Immigration (Electronic Travel Authorisations) (Consequential Amendment) Regulations 2023

Debate between Lord Murphy of Torfaen and Baroness Suttie
Tuesday 23rd May 2023

(1 year ago)

Lords Chamber
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Lord Murphy of Torfaen Portrait Lord Murphy of Torfaen (Lab)
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My Lords, I rise very briefly to support my noble friend Lady Ritchie and, indeed, everything that the noble Lord, Lord Dodds, has just said. This is a classic example of where Brexit completely hits the Good Friday agreement because the agreement was negotiated on the basis in strand 2 of having north-south bodies on the island of Ireland. The most obvious and the least controversial of those bodies was, of course, tourism. People come to Ireland to go to north and to south and there were never any barriers. Now, of course, if you are one of the 70% of tourists who come to visit north and south—mainly from America but elsewhere too—you are now saddled with this bureaucratic business of having to apply for a sort of semi-visa to go across the border. That goes completely against the sense of what the border meant when the Good Friday agreement was negotiated a quarter of a century ago. There was a hard border, of course, then, but the idea was that within the European Union that would become more and more vague—the border almost disappears.

Now, of course, because of what has happened with Brexit, we have the difficulty with the border in the Irish Sea, but we also have this difficulty of the land border between Northern Ireland and Ireland. As my noble friend said, it is over 300 miles of border. That cannot conceivably be policed in the traditional way. I too would be grateful if the Minister could tell the House how this system will be policed. It seems virtually impossible for that to happen. They say it can be done electronically, but, frankly, that is pie in the sky. If the idea is to stop terrorists, drug dealers, gangs or criminals, I do not think that this will do anything to stop those people at all. There are other ways in which that can be dealt with. What the regulations will do is seriously impact the tourist industry, north and south. Hundreds of thousands of people travel that border for the purposes of tourism only. Millions of pounds go into the Northern Ireland economy as a consequence of Tourism Ireland—this north-south body that was created 25 years ago.

I do not see the necessity for this. I am glad the Government dropped the idea of citizens who legally live in the Republic of Ireland having to have one of these authorisations to go across the border and work either side. That has gone. It was bonkers. However, this scheme will still be very difficult for the tourist industry in Northern Ireland. Indeed, it goes against the spirit of what we negotiated a quarter of a century ago.

Baroness Suttie Portrait Baroness Suttie (LD)
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My Lords, I too thank the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie of Downpatrick, for her regret Motion, which has allowed a very interesting debate on a very important matter. I also thank the noble Lord, Lord Dodds, for his very relevant questions from the other perspective, which I hope the Minister will be able to give full answers to.

I pretty much agreed with everything the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, and the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, said so I will keep my remarks very brief. I commend the noble Baroness for the very clear and detailed way in which she introduced the problems facing the Northern Ireland tourist industry as a result of these measures. Unfortunately, I believe this is an example of unjoined-up government. The Home Office made these measures without giving due consideration to the very particular circumstances of the island of Ireland and without perhaps fully understanding the consequences on tourism—a sector which, as others have said, is of huge economic importance across the island of Ireland. For my own curiosity, can the Minister say what consultations the Home Office had with the Northern Ireland Office, the Northern Ireland tourist sector or, indeed, the Irish embassy in advance of drawing up these proposals?

The Minister will no doubt say that these proposals will be very light touch and should not cause any kind of bureaucratic obstacle, but it is still very unclear, as the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, said, how they can be enforced in reality when there are—thank goodness—no proposals to introduce checks on the north-south border. Perhaps he can provide an explanation on this point and say how enforcement will actually take place. Can he also say how, in enforcing these measures, the Government will be able to determine whether people travelled knowingly, or indeed unknowingly, into Northern Ireland from the Republic of Ireland?

One of the other concerns about these measures, as the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, said, is that they might deter the spontaneous traveller. This is not just a hypothetical point. A great many tourists who fly into Dublin from the United States or Australia, for example, will spontaneously decide to go to Northern Ireland to visit friends and family. Given that, as others have again said, approximately two-thirds of international visitors to Northern Ireland arrive via Dublin in the Republic of Ireland, does the Minister not accept that these measures are likely to act as a deterrent, given the additional bureaucracy, delay and cost?

Will the Minister undertake to meet representatives from the Northern Ireland tourist sector or, better still, as the noble Baroness suggested, travel to Northern Ireland to meet representatives of Tourism Ireland, which, as the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, said, operates on an all-Ireland basis, and see for himself the realities and the potential impact of this scheme, as well as the complexities involved? To repeat the request made by the noble Baroness, even at this late stage in the process, can he commit to giving clear exemptions on criminal sanctions for non-visa nationals crossing the land border?

Finally, will the Government agree to publish the impact assessment of these measures on the Northern Ireland tourism industry, including an analysis of the possible deterrence effect that the introduction of the ETA might cause?

Postponement of Local Elections (Northern Ireland) Order 2023

Debate between Lord Murphy of Torfaen and Baroness Suttie
Wednesday 22nd February 2023

(1 year, 3 months ago)

Grand Committee
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Lord Murphy of Torfaen Portrait Lord Murphy of Torfaen (Lab)
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My Lords, the Opposition support the Government in this statutory instrument. When the Minister was explaining the rationale behind it, he also explained how complicated electoral arrangements in Northern Ireland are under the STV system. I had forgotten how long and complicated the process is and, therefore, it is absolutely sensible that this happens and that the elections are postponed to a later date.

I know, from reading the notes on the instrument, that the Government consulted the political parties in Northern Ireland and that no one raised objections to the elections being postponed. In a way, that is quite a good thing, because it means that parties that are not necessarily interested in the Coronation have not opposed the postponement of the elections.

I hope, as the Minister said, that the Coronation will be celebrated in a robust and worthy way in Northern Ireland, as it will be in the rest of the United Kingdom. I too will celebrate it, but it reminds me that when the present King was Prince of Wales, and when I was Secretary of State, he took a huge and very active interest in Northern Ireland matters—not simply going to garden parties and events like that but meeting the main players in civic society in Northern Ireland, in a positive way. I hope that the Coronation, in its new form, and the reign of the King, short as it will be by then, will be fully celebrated in Northern Ireland on that weekend, and that we ensure that there is also an opportunity then to take a break from the politics of Northern Ireland.

This leads me to my last point. I sincerely hope that, by the time the Coronation is held, we have an Assembly and Executive up and running in Northern Ireland.

Baroness Suttie Portrait Baroness Suttie (LD)
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My Lords, the Liberal Democrat Benches also support this order and regard it as a necessary and common-sense approach to solving this issue. We also welcome this opportunity to debate it briefly—and I think that we will all be brief. As the Minister said, under the single transferable vote system—the proportional representation system used in Northern Ireland for local elections—it just would not have been possible to finish the count before the Coronation celebrations and events began. This would have had an impact on the staff and the valuable job that they do in working so hard to handle the count, because counting an STV election is very complex. It could also have an impact on the candidates and the voters.

I have a very brief point on that. It is very important for voters across the United Kingdom, including in Northern Ireland, to have confidence in the democratic system and to know that, once they have voted, their votes will be counted and that, at the next stage, the elected representatives will get on with serving the community in which they have been elected. In that regard, I also hope that, by the time we celebrate the Coronation, there will be a fully functional and active Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive.

Delaying these local elections in Northern Ireland clearly makes sense so that the count will not be interrupted. I, for one, hope that everybody enjoys the celebrations around the Coronation as much as I hope to do; I am grateful that they will be taking place in May, which is usually a wonderful month across the whole United Kingdom. I hope that we will have good weather in Northern Ireland so that people can celebrate.

Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill

Debate between Lord Murphy of Torfaen and Baroness Suttie
Baroness Suttie Portrait Baroness Suttie (LD)
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My Lords, as was said by the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, this is an extremely important debate. It may have been long, but it is extremely important. We have heard many detailed and deeply compelling speeches. I will just pay tribute to the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, because his intervention reminded us what this is all about. It is about people who have suffered, and it is important to focus on that.

As many noble Lords have said several times during debates on the Bill, we would have preferred it not to proceed at all, not least because of its Clause 18. I think I am not alone on these Benches in rather liking the radical noble Lord, Lord Cormack. He sometimes surprises us with his radicalism, but he was absolutely right to talk about this as trying to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. There are other, less polite, Scottish versions, but I will not use them today.

I will try to be brief, because time is ticking on and dinner break business is waiting. I am pleased to have added my name to Amendments 112, 124 and 135, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Hain, who made a very compelling argument for them in his intervention. Clause 18 is absolutely the key clause of concern. It is at the very heart of people’s concerns about the Bill as currently drafted, and the proposals for immunity have caused a great deal of distress and anxiety to so many victims by potentially closing the door to hope. The maintenance of that hope that justice could be done has been so vital for so many victims and their families. If Clause 18 is left unamended, it is not clear to me how the Bill will be Article 2 compliant. I know that this view is shared by many others speaking in the debate, not least the noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan, and I feel that the Minister should respond to that in his concluding remarks.

At an earlier meeting on the Bill, I asked the Minister how the “general immunity from prosecution” set out in Clause 18 would sit alongside some of the government amendments proposed, which, in some way, restrict the definition of immunity. I am not a lawyer, but it is not clear to me how the general immunity framed in the existing Clause 18 would sit with some of the exemptions that the Government are proposing. I would be very grateful if the Minister could shed some light on this during his concluding remarks. We all appreciate that the Minister is trying to square multiple circles with this Bill, and that he himself has expressed deep concerns about the prospect of general immunity as it stands.

In conclusion, it would be useful to hear from the Minister whether there is still scope for movement on this between Committee and Report stages. He will have heard the united view of all noble Lords and Baronesses who have spoken this evening. Every single Peer who has spoken in this debate is against Clause 18. The victims are against Clause 18. I know that it was a Conservative Party manifesto commitment, but it is wrong and remains wrong. We would like to hear the Minister’s views on whether we can make progress, perhaps through the proposals of the noble Lord, Lord Hain, and the Operation Kenova process, but, personally, I think that it should be deleted from the Bill.

Lord Murphy of Torfaen Portrait Lord Murphy of Torfaen (Lab)
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My Lords, this has been a very impressive, rather stunning debate. I have tabled Clause 18 stand part, which would effectively omit immunity from the Bill. The noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, quite rightly mentioned that this debate, and this and subsequent clauses, are at the heart of the legislation. Without them, there would be no Bill and no argument. If anybody reads in Hansard, or watches on television, the last two hours of debate in your Lordships’ House—and I hope they do—they will see how strong the feeling is across these Benches. This is not just because people do not like it but because noble Lords have spoken from deep experience over decades in Northern Ireland, from living there, being Ministers there, or whatever it might be, unanimous in the belief that this immunity, this amnesty—they are the same thing—should be dropped.

The other unanimous view in the debate was that the legislation completely ignores the victims: it is not about them, whereas it should be. Looking back over the last 25 years—particularly, I suppose, at the agreement—as I was saying to someone today, there were a number of things that we could have done and did not. We did many things when we introduced the agreement, but we could have improved on how we dealt with victims. In the years that followed, there were brave attempts: the Eames-Bradley review and others all tried to put right that which was not right a quarter of a century ago. What is certain is that this legislation does not. To the contrary, it makes things worse. Over 25 years, I have never experienced such unanimity on a difficult issue like this in Northern Ireland—I have experienced much disunity—so it cannot be right that we go ahead.

The noble Lord, Lord Cormack, made the interesting point about whether we should go ahead with the Bill, as it is so bad. Then the noble Lord, Lord Hain, the noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan, and others put their amendments forward, all first class with excellent speeches. They give an opportunity to improve it. Revocation of immunity, conditional immunity and licensing around immunity would all certainly improve it. The whole issue of trying to improve it was discussed last week in our first day of debates on Kenova. That is a dilemma for us in this House. We could have done nothing, let the Bill go through on the nod, and said that it was so bad that we would have to wait for a change of Government to repeal it, which the leader of my party has said that he will do. But there is a duty on us to try to ensure that it is not as bad as it is at the moment when it leaves this Chamber and goes back to the other place.

This part of the Bill in particular goes fundamentally against the rule of law. If I thought for one second that we could salvage some of this, that would be all well and good. But my feeling is that the Government simply want to go ahead, come what may. The amendments that they have put forward are all right, but they do not go far enough. My plea, and, I am sure, that of everybody in this Chamber, is to drop it.

Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill

Debate between Lord Murphy of Torfaen and Baroness Suttie
Baroness Suttie Portrait Baroness Suttie (LD)
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My Lords, I will be extremely brief, given the hour and the desire to move on to the dinner break business. From these Benches, we very much support the amendments of the noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan, to impose a function of investigation on the ICRIR, as well as one of review. She made very compelling arguments and I will not repeat them, but I hope that the Minister will take on board the strength of feeling in the debate on these amendments this evening.

I will speak briefly to Amendment 72 in this group, to which I have added my name. I was struck by the personal and powerful speech of the noble Lord, Lord Blair, as well as the practical suggestions of the noble Lord, Lord Hogan-Howe, for some ways forward. Perhaps we could take this forward with the noble Lord, Lord Hain, before Report.

The noble Lord, Lord Hain, made the case powerfully that the process being used by Jon Boutcher in Operation Kenova has cross-party support and has acquired the confidence of all those who have been directly engaged in it. Perhaps most importantly, it demonstrably works. As the noble Lord, Lord Hain, said, we do not need to reinvent the wheel. I suspect that virtually everyone taking part in this debate has spoken to Jon Boutcher. If you meet him, it is hard not to be overwhelmingly impressed by his commitment, dedication and drive. He is really committed to this process, and we should seriously consider it between now and report.

I urge the Minister to look closely at Amendment 72. I look forward to his response at the end of this group, not least to some of the questions that have been asked on the Government’s response to the option of upscaling the processes used in Operation Kenova, which seems to me to be a preferable approach compared to the proposals in the Bill.

Lord Murphy of Torfaen Portrait Lord Murphy of Torfaen (Lab)
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My Lords, if I were still Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and someone had suggested to me that the Bill should be introduced and then, immediately after suggesting it, said that all the international bodies concerned with human rights, Members of Congress in the United States, every single political party in Northern Ireland, every Church in Northern Ireland, and more or less everyone in Northern Ireland was against it, you might understand what my response would have been. The Bill certainly would not have ended up in this Chamber.

What I do not underestimate is the problem that the Minister and Government face. Of course, we have to try to resolve these issues—we have been 25 years trying to resolve these issues, and we did not do it when we did the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, because there were all sorts of other things to do. We have tried and tried, not least with the Eames-Bradley report, which I am sure the noble and right reverend Lord remembers. However, there is a dilemma: should the Government abandon the Bill—should they dump it? I think they probably should—or should it be improved? That is the work of the House of Lords, which is trying to improve it, to see whether there is any consensus at all among political parties here and in Northern Ireland as to what should replace it.

Northern Ireland Elections

Debate between Lord Murphy of Torfaen and Baroness Suttie
Monday 14th November 2022

(1 year, 7 months ago)

Lords Chamber
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Lord Murphy of Torfaen Portrait Lord Murphy of Torfaen (Lab)
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My Lords, I very much welcome the Statement made in the other place last week. First, it says that there should be no elections in Northern Ireland, and I agree with that. I see no point at all in having elections, given the fact that it would harden positions and polarise the situation. It would also, of course, cost £7 million, which could be better spent on the health service. Secondly, I believe the implication in the Statement is that we are looking forward to celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday agreement, and that that could be a suitable time for which the negotiations ahead of us might aim. As the Secretary of State said in the other place, there are also huge unresolved issues in Northern Ireland at the moment. The health service is in a critical position and decisions are now going to be made by civil servants. That is not a good state of affairs, and I hope that these issues will be resolved as soon as possible.

The Minister will know, because he has been involved in these matters for a long time, that ultimately the solution to all this can be resolved only in Belfast, even though the negotiations are between London and Brussels—of course they are, because we are talking about the Northern Ireland protocol, and those negotiations should obviously now continue at pace. We are told that, so far, we have had technical discussions between civil servants from London and Brussels. I hope that Ministers from the Foreign Office are now able to negotiate much more assuredly than they have over the last number of months. As the Minister also knows, whatever they do about the Northern Ireland protocol, the solution that is ultimately found has to be resolved by agreement between the nationalist and unionist communities in Northern Ireland.

I understand the problems that unionists have with the protocol and the feeling that their identity has been subject to a lot of strain because of it, but there is an issue among nationalists too, who, by and large, believe that the protocol is something that should happen. It is not easy, of course, but it never has been for negotiations so far as Northern Ireland is concerned.

The one thing I would stress in what I ask the Minister is that the negotiations themselves should be very different from what has occurred over recent months. First, there should be a proper process and plan, and there should be a timetable and a structure. There has been ad hocery, if you like, over recent months, where we find that Ministers go to Northern Ireland, spend some time with the party leaders and come back again. I am not saying that that is a worthless occupation but it is just not sufficient. There has to be a proper, structured plan for talks over the next few months. There is a huge need for those talks to be held among the political parties in Northern Ireland. Yes, the Secretary of State and Ministers must talk with the party leaders, but there is a strong case for the party leaders in Northern Ireland and the Government to come together in round-table talks. That is how progress can be made, and I hope that can happen as well.

I hope that the new Prime Minister and the new Taoiseach—or the new-ish Taoiseach, by Christmas—will be able to get together as well. The Minister knows, as Members of the House know, that, ultimately, what is needed in Northern Ireland is the push that comes from prime ministerial engagement. That is very important too.

The other issue is that, over the last number of months, the negotiation has been seen as a European Union-United Kingdom negotiation. Of course, that is absolutely proper, but it seems to me that the Prime Minister meeting the Taoiseach the other day was a good sign in indicating that the two guardians of the Good Friday agreement—the British Government and the Irish Government—have a very special part to play in ensuring that they get together to deal with issues where is it appropriate, particularly of course on strand 2, north-south relations, and strand 3, east-west relations.

The months ahead present us with huge opportunities. They are difficult ones—but it has always been difficult, as I said earlier. When we get to April, I hope that we will have arrived at a situation where the institutions are up and running; the people in Northern Ireland can govern their own affairs; the institutions are there for all the people of Northern Ireland, whichever community they come from; and that we do not drift towards direct rule. That is the last thing that anybody wants—nobody wants it—and I hope that we will see progress in the months ahead.

Baroness Suttie Portrait Baroness Suttie (LD)
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My Lords, I too am grateful for the opportunity to discuss last week’s Statement. An election at this time, as the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, said, would have been an expensive distraction and would almost certainly not have resulted in any kind of breakthrough in the impasse. It is always a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Murphy. Not only does he speak with such great authority and common sense but, for many of us, me included, he symbolises a more optimistic time in Northern Ireland politics.

Nearly 25 years on since the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, it is very important to recall that it was not always like this. There have been times of great hope and optimism. The peace process has previously been held up as a positive example to many other troubled parts of the world. But, as the Minister knows all too well, with all his years of experience, those more optimistic times did not happen without hard work, dedication, dialogue and commitment at the highest level. Mutual respect and trust were absolutely key to this.

Like the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, I appeal to the Prime Minister to take an active role in finding a solution and a way forward out of this impasse, for it is in the interests of the whole United Kingdom for him to do so. Continued stalemate in Belfast is damaging to our reputation and is not in our national interest. So can the Minister confirm when and whether the Prime Minister plans to visit Northern Ireland next?

I am a Scot who believes strongly in the United Kingdom. I am not from Northern Ireland but, in the six years of closely following Northern Ireland matters in your Lordships’ House, I have come to understand the intensity and strength of feelings—and indeed anger—that have come to pervade Northern Ireland politics since 2016. An already complex history has become so very much more complex and complicated since Brexit. Cross-community consensus is the only way forward but, to quote my honourable friend Stephen Farry MP,

“power sharing is about power sharing happening; it is not about blocking it from happening.”—[Official Report, Commons, 20/7/22; col. 1026.]

The Minister will be aware that the leader of the Alliance Party, Naomi Long, wrote to the Prime Minister on 25 October setting out some suggestions for reform. If the choice becomes between deadlock and direct rule, is this not the time for the Good Friday/Belfast agreement to evolve and develop to meet the current circumstances? As the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, said in a debate last week, any reforms to the Belfast agreement have to be “by agreement”; it cannot be

“changed unilaterally by one side or the other.”—[Official Report, 7/11/22; col. 535.]

Can the Minister indicate when he anticipates that Naomi Long will receive a response to her letter?

As a true believer in devolution, I say that it is hard not to reflect what a fully functioning Northern Ireland Executive would be in a position to achieve right now. A functioning Executive could have been working to resolve the crisis in the healthcare system and to deal with those issues surrounding legacy and moving on from the past—for example, through promoting a truly integrated education system. Perhaps most importantly, a functioning Executive could have been promoting Northern Ireland as a positive place to do business and to attract inward investment, with its unique access to both the United Kingdom and EU markets.

I am not in any way underplaying the scale of the problems facing Northern Ireland politics at this time, but surely the Government, as well as all the political parties in Northern Ireland, owe it to the people of Northern Ireland to try again, to change the tone and to start again with a fresh approach to negotiations, both in Brussels and in Belfast. Not to do so would, I believe, be unforgivable as we approach the 25th anniversary of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement.

Flags (Northern Ireland) (Amendment) (No. 2) Regulations 2022

Debate between Lord Murphy of Torfaen and Baroness Suttie
Monday 5th September 2022

(1 year, 9 months ago)

Grand Committee
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Lord Murphy of Torfaen Portrait Lord Murphy of Torfaen (Lab)
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My Lords, I apologise for delaying the Committee for some minutes. I completely abandoned my toasted teacake to get here very quickly; I had mistaken the time.

The Minister is right that it is a technical change, of course, but it reflects the significance of flags in Northern Ireland. This was a cause of great bewilderment to me when I first went there so many years ago—25 or 30 years ago—including the fact that one saw the Palestinian and Israeli flags: the Israeli flag generally in loyalist areas and the Palestinian one generally in nationalist areas. It reflects identity, not as Palestinians and Israelis—those are political choices—but rather the identity of people as they see themselves.

The law is clear. The flags to be flown on public buildings are flown on them because those buildings are part of the United Kingdom. Clearly, if the rules change in Great Britain, they should change in Northern Ireland as well.

It is quite interesting to read the Assembly’s proceedings on this particular statutory instrument. It was, as always, an intriguing and interesting debate that reflected the wider view on flags in Northern Ireland.

On balance, the issue has been dealt with sensitively over the last two decades, but there have been some notable exceptions, such as over Belfast City Hall some years ago, which caused a great deal of fuss. You have to be very careful in what you do about flags. It is pretty clear that this particular change was initiated by the palace. Noble Lords will ask why for themselves—I think it is pretty self-evident—but the commemoration of the birthdays of all the royals has had to be abandoned on the flagpoles of Northern Ireland as a consequence of what I think this change resulted from. The essence of this is that what happens in Britain happens in Northern Ireland as long as it remains part of the United Kingdom. Even if it did not, it would still have to have sensitivity about flags. However, it is still part of the United Kingdom, so I support the statutory instrument.

Baroness Suttie Portrait Baroness Suttie (LD)
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My Lords, as the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, just said, flags are a highly sensitive issue in Northern Ireland that can provoke very strong reactions. However, I shall be very brief, as the Liberal Democrats, and indeed Alliance in Northern Ireland, broadly support these measures, which reduce the allocation of designated days and align them with the rest of the United Kingdom, as the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, said.

Given that these regulations once again reduce rather than add to the number of designated days, could the Minister say whether further consideration has been given to adding to the number of days through commemorating the Battle of the Somme? As the Minister will know, when these regulations were debated in the Northern Ireland Assembly in March this year, my Alliance colleague, Andrew Muir, suggested making the anniversary of the Battle of the Somme a designated day. He then followed up with a letter to DCMS. This was strongly supported in Belfast City Hall, where earlier this year the birthday of Prince Andrew was substituted with the anniversary of the Battle of the Somme as a designated flag day.

As noble Lords will know, it is estimated that at least 3,500 lives were lost from across the island of Ireland during the Battle of the Somme from the 36th (Ulster) Division and the 16th (Irish) Division. Can the Minister update us on whether further consideration has been given to this matter?

In seeking to support the Government today, it is vital to continue to stress the importance of respect, and of respecting how people feel about a flag and its symbolism, even if one does not entirely personally share or understand those sentiments.

Identity and Language (Northern Ireland) Bill [HL]

Debate between Lord Murphy of Torfaen and Baroness Suttie
Lord Murphy of Torfaen Portrait Lord Murphy of Torfaen (Lab)
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My Lords, I echo the view of the Minister in the sense that the debates have been very good, informative and useful. They have also been informed from the point of view of many contributions from Members of your Lordships’ House from Northern Ireland, which enhanced the quality of the debate considerably. I thank the Minister for the very civilised way he handled this Bill at Second Reading, in Committee and on Report, and all Members of your Lordships’ House who took part.

The Minister rightly says that the Bill is based on New Decade, New Approach, which was an all-party agreement some years ago in Northern Ireland, and the Bill faithfully sticks to that agreement. There have been some improvements and, again, I am so glad that the Minister and the Government were able to accept those changes; for example, to how the Secretary of State’s step-in powers would be dealt with by Parliament. There were also changes, such as the Castlereagh Foundation, which originally was not in the Bill, and in the title of the commissioner for Ulster Scots to add the Ulster-British tradition. These came about because we had a good debate, and because these were sensible things to do.

I wish the Bill well. It is founded on the principles of the Good Friday agreement of equality, of ensuring that people have respect for each other, and of parity of esteem—which came up many times in debate. There is still an opportunity in the House of Commons for further changes to be made, so long as they are in step with the agreements made in Belfast. I wish it well on its legislative journey.

Baroness Suttie Portrait Baroness Suttie (LD)
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My Lords, I too thank the Minister and his Bill team for the constructive and positive way in which they have engaged with noble Lords on the Bill. I also thank my colleague Elizabeth Plummer in the Lib Dem Whips’ Office for her constant support and knowledge as somebody from Northern Ireland.

The Minister sets an extremely positive example—perhaps the gold standard—with his willingness to listen and make changes, as the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, has said. It would be deeply welcome if a similarly constructive and listening approach were to be used for the two other Bills that have not yet reached your Lordships’ House: the legacy Bill and the Northern Ireland protocol Bill. It is unlikely, perhaps, but one can live in hope.

I have two final brief points, if I may. I believe that everyone, including the Minister, has agreed at various stages of the Bill that it would have been much preferred if the Northern Ireland Assembly had been dealing with this Bill. The Northern Ireland Assembly, with all its relevant experience and expertise in being much closer than many of us are here, would have been much better placed to deal with this legislation.

During the slightly unusual and turbulent period that we are going through, I none the less hope that the new Northern Ireland Secretary will allow the Minister to use his many years of experience to leave no stone unturned in helping to bring back a functioning Executive and Assembly as soon as possible. It is in no one’s interest, least of all the people of Northern Ireland, for this current stalemate to continue.

Identity and Language (Northern Ireland) Bill [HL]

Debate between Lord Murphy of Torfaen and Baroness Suttie
Lord Murphy of Torfaen Portrait Lord Murphy of Torfaen (Lab)
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My Lords, I can understand much of what the noble Lord, Lord Morrow, is saying. I entirely agree with the Bill where it says that the Irish language commissioner should have powers of due regard if public authorities do not come up to the standards that the commissioner expects. I entirely agree with and in no way denigrate that.

However, I am slightly puzzled, especially in light of what the Minister said earlier about the sensible change that there has been in the title of the commissioner. There is a difference between the way in which the commissioners operate, because they have different functions. Clearly, the Irish language commissioner is concerned about the Irish language, but the Ulster Scots commissioner goes beyond that. The noble Lord, Lord Morrow, referred to paragraphs 5 and 6 of the NDNA agreement. Paragraph 5.14 in Annex E says that the commissioner will deal with

“the language, arts and literature associated with the Ulster Scots/Ulster British tradition in Northern Ireland.”

This is followed by another sentence:

“The Commissioner’s remit will include the areas of education, research, media, cultural activities and facilities and tourism initiatives.”


In paragraph 5.16, it goes on to say:

“The functions of the Commissioner will be to … provide advice and guidance to public authorities, including where relevant on the effect and implementation, so far as affecting Ulster Scots, of commitments under”


various charters. So it is quite clear that the agreement meant that the two commissioners, in their different ways, would oversee the work of public authorities in Northern Ireland on the issues that were debated and agreed before that agreement was signed.

There is a case based on getting confidence across the community because, as the Minister knows, nothing can happen properly in Northern Ireland unless there is confidence and trust across all communities in Northern Ireland. Not just the nationalist and unionist communities but everybody has to see that there is fairness, and that people are being treated equally.

There is an opportunity before this Bill goes to the other place for the Government and the Minister—provided there is still a Government in situ over the next few weeks; I rather fancy that, by the time this session has finished, the Minister might be the last Minister of this Government still in office, but we will have to wait and see—to reflect on the points that the noble Lord, Lord Morrow, and others have made and to listen to other people in Northern Ireland on what the answers to these things might be. It also seems an ideal opportunity, and the noble Lord, Lord Morrow, might have mentioned this, to talk to the Ulster- Scots Agency and to the bodies dealing with the Irish language in Northern Ireland to get their views on the progress of the Bill. There is an opportunity to have another look at this to ensure that there is full confidence, across the board, in what is an essential piece of legislation.

Baroness Suttie Portrait Baroness Suttie (LD)
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My Lords, on Monday I had an extremely useful meeting with Ian Crozier of the Ulster-Scots Agency. Although I cannot support these amendments, they do raise some very important points, as the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, just said.

The Bill as drafted places a duty on public authorities to have “due regard” to the Irish language commissioner, as has been discussed, but creates no such duty in respect of the commissioner responsible for Ulster Scots and the Ulster-British tradition. This is therefore causing some lack of trust and some concern. This difference of approach was not specifically set out in New Decade, New Approach, which suggested that both commissioners should be treated the same way on this point.

Will the Minister respond to the fears that have been expressed in the debate and, indeed, by the Ulster-Scots Agency that treating the two commissioners differently through this legislation risks undermining the credibility of one of the commissioners? Like the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, did, I ask whether the Minister has already met the Ulster-Scots Agency. If not, will he do so and listen directly first-hand to its very real concerns?